Bonds, stocks, and commodity prices are sending different clues while the pundits proclaim synthesized global economic growth. After thirty-six years of rising returns for fixed income, almost a decade of stock market gains, and commodity prices entering a new cycle, thoughtful market participants are confused. The one common impetus is growing confidence in decision-making. With more confidence investors are consciously or not accepting more risk because they are getting a somewhat clearer view of the future. As a contrarian, and often allergic to popular views, I have my doubts. I am not totally alone. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has said, “2018 feels ripe for a big unexpected crisis." My concern is that the growing confidence is crowding out a reserve for surprises, good or bad.
Inverted Yield Curve Fear
While it is true that the last seven fixed income prices declines came after the 2-10 year US Treasury yield curve inverted, I do not believe it is an immutable law of investment science. Nevertheless, it is a proper place for study. There is a similar pattern in the futures market when near-term investments are more expensive (higher yield) than long-term ones. What is important is that the market view is that the near-term future has more risk than the longer-term. Often this is right, but not always. Remember the surprise factor. In my opinion an inverted yield curve if and when it happens is more descriptive of current fears than predictive of long-term prices. Fixed income prices are set by supply and demand and are similar to the odds posted by book makers which are not the result of careful analysis but prices that will bring new bets into balance to keep the bookmakers’ capital risk into reasonable balance. The bookies and the bond market will lose out only if there are too many surprises.
The fears that there are oncoming inverted yield curves or other causes for bond prices to decline have been operating for the last few years. The biggest concern is not credit losses, but inflation. To service those who are concerned that inflation will rise above current levels, the US Treasury and others have created TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) funds which are issued in roughly the same maturities as the other treasury paper. For more than the last three years the total return investment performance of the average TIPS fund is slightly better than the average intermediate US Government Securities fund. For longer periods the reverse is true. One wonders what the relative performance results would be when the reported inflation rate finally reaches or exceeds the Fed desired 2% level. It is possible that our and others are from time to time paying premiums to buy inflation protection and this is why the TIPS funds perform better rather than their pricing mechanism?
If one is managing retirement capital accounts for those that are currently working, I would substitute 30 year treasury yield for the 10 year. (More on this later.)
Individuals investing in fixed income securities or funds should separate the total return numbers between income (interest) payments and market prices. Inflation will not nominally impact the income stream, but may have significant impacts on both the prices of the bonds and the purchasing power of the proceeds.
At Caltech and other places studying how the brain makes decisions, they have found that most humans make decisions on finding past memories that coincide with current conditions. Every now and then, the occasional winner will see the current situations as sufficiently different than the past that they opt for a new strategy. In other words the preferred algorithms will give way to new thinking and actions.
Stocks Are a Confidence Game
Almost every prognostication from brokers, advisors, and commentators in terms of the stock market were expansive. Two recent examples display the enthusiasm for the stock market are as follows:
“Investors Intelligence” tracks letter writers in its latest report in Barron’s; 64.4% are bullish and only 13.5% are bearish. In approximately the same period the AAII weekly survey showed a significant reversal in their volatile report with the bulls declining to 48.7% from the prior week’s 59.8% and more significantly the bears gained to 25.1% from 15.8% the prior week. The AAII sample shifts each week which could have caused the changes and this week some were more worried about the impact of the bond market or were reaching to political news.
Commodities are Active
Based on perceived increasing demand from China and rising demand from US manufacturers, industrial metal prices are rising. In a classic example of a surprise, the price of oil touched $70 a barrel this week and there is a press story that some expect the price to reach $80 this year. In response, over the last four weeks the best performing mutual fund investment average is the Natural Resources funds, up 12.66%. As a contrarian and a long-term investor I am wondering when the increasing population and shrinking farming land will be seen in rising prices for grains. This hasn’t happened in a long time.
Very Long-Term Outlook
The latest available estimate of the global retirement savings gap in 2015 was $70 trillion and by 2050 it is estimated to be $400 trillion. Thus, in only 35 years there is a need for over five times more capital to be invested for retirement. (This is why I suggested using the 30 year yield for the spread calculation.) How should one invest to meet this long-term need? I do not believe that today one can evolve a consistent investment policy to meet these needs. My contrarian nature suggests that it may be easier to identify what not to do. The average S&P500 mutual fund beat 90 out 96 mutual fund investment averages for the last five years and 84 for the last ten years. I don’t think that will continue. The best performing hedge funds in 2017 were invested in large caps and securities driven by momentum (FAANG + 2 from China). Different strategies at different times will be needed to avoid losses and achieve gains. This is why I believe that a portfolio of different funds or managers is the most prudent for the long-term.
Question of the week: What are the most prudent strategies for the long term?
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